Is it folk art, vandalism or unsightly litter? Thousands of stickers affixed to MAM signposts are a baffling but creative curiosity.
At first, I thought it was shag carpeting.
It looked to me as though the signal lights along Lincoln Memorial Drive, just outside the Calatrava, had been upholstered in dirty white shag carpeting. Or something else, something pale and textured and possibly hairy. Something definitely not smooth metal.
After passing by and wondering for many days, I parked the car and got out to take a look. The signposts leading away from the Milwaukee Art Museum’s doors are sheathed in thousands of white admission stickers. Visitors walk out the front door, peel the labels off their shirts, and stick them right onto the nearest lamppost or traffic-light pole.
The stickers populate the posts like survivors of a tsunami, as if they had been carried by a wave washing down the front steps in a thick slurry that clung to tall metal surfaces, overflowed north and south along each corner’s traffic semaphores, and drifted east and west on ebbing currents. Moving away from MAM, the flow slows to a trickle, but as far as a mile north and a half-mile west, you can find lone, errant stickers tucked behind a One Way sign or hugging a lamppost.
One sticker joins others in a crowd of months-old testimonials to the joys of strolling through that beautiful ship/bird/building that so stunningly addresses and incorporates the lake, the sky and the horizon. It’s the gateway for saying hello to the Warhol Brillo Box, the Reginald Baylor with “Peterbilt” built right into the painting, the sculpture that looks like Cousin It overlooking the water. Stopping at Beth Lipman’s incredible glass sculpture, Laid Table. Contemplating the Monumental Head of Balzac, where Auguste Rodin’s energy collides with that of the great writer. This summer, MAM renovations tuck most of the collection away, leaving only the pavilion and special exhibits open. But in November, the permanent galleries reopen. Crowds of visitors homesick for the beloved collections and eager to see the new spaces will surely produce new layers of stickers.
In a final gesture as art lovers leave the museum, on the way to their Downtown offices or over the bridge to Buckley’s or up the drive to Northpoint for a custard shake, they will leave their mark behind.
It’s an intentional choice. They could peel off their stickers, roll them into miniature balls, and toss them away. They could stick them on their notebooks, their laptop cases, or their kid brothers’ backs. They could abandon the stickers on their shirts, forget about them, and discover them a week later, curled and shredded, as they pull damp clothing from the washer. Visitors could do any of these things, but they do not. Instead, they cover the signposts with inch-square white vestiges of an afternoon of art-viewing. And in doing so, patrons are themselves making art.
It is a consummately human thing, this drive to produce something that endures, to create beauty to leave behind. A scribble on a cave wall, a palm print pressed into clay, smooth stones stacked into a cairn. Cloth pieced together and embroidered into a quilt. Wood carved and smoothed into a bird in flight.
Some among us create work so incomparable that it elevates or shocks or transforms the human spirit to merely witness it. So we gather in movie theaters and concert halls and museum galleries to stand in awe and have its magic worked upon us. Borders of language and nations become meaningless in the face of art; it speaks in a dialect we comprehend almost in spite of ourselves. Creating art is universal among all cultures and throughout all time. Perhaps our very DNA carries our need to hear and see and be near art.
The Milwaukee Art Museum has long honored art created by self-taught folk artists who craft and form and shape the common materials of daily life into images and statements that are, despite their rustic origins, absolutely art. With such art inside, it is poetic balance that outside the museum, folk art is also honored.
Perhaps the sticker pioneers weren’t thinking of creating art. The project may have been, in its initial stages, mere graffiti. But with layers and layers of the same shapes and colors applied to the same spaces by different people, the subversive act became group art.
It says something profound and good about Milwaukee that the city lets the art stand. One group of artists creates it, but another group allows the stickers to, well, stick. May they never take them down.